14 NOV 13 UPDATE: Leaked US Airways Memo: Agents Forbidden to Manually Request Award Space
US Airways has not left Star Alliance yet, but if you are trying to book a Lufthansa award next year it might as well have. Something very odd is going on right now at US Airways with Dividend Miles agents unable to see any of Lufthansa’s inventory, unless travel commences on a Wednesday or Saturday. Irritated that I continually had to tell clients that US Airways could not book Lufthansa award space, I reached out to Vice President of Corporate Communications John McDonald for clarification.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a business class award I was trying to book for a client from New York to Johannesburg via Frankfurt on Lufthansa. Business and economy class seats were available in StarNet, thus bookable by all Star Alliance carriers including US Airways, but Dividend Miles agents could not see space on either flight in either cabin. My hunch was that, similar to the StarNet blocking United Airlines engaged in prior to its merger with Continental, US Airways was artificially screening Lufthansa space from reservation agents for revenue reasons—put simply, with the glut of US Airways miles floating around and Lufthansa flights offering generous award availability, US Airways was not happy about paying so much to Lufthansa for these seats.
US Airways denies the theory that this problem is deliberate. McDonald put me in touch with Brenda Middelton, a Marketing Manager who works in the Dividend Miles Department, who I asked pointedly whether this was a conscious policy choice. In an e-mail exchange, she responded, “As far as we know the blocking of space is not deliberate and until we speak to LH we are not sure why their space is showing up in StarNet and not in Shares.”
McDonald added, “It is my understanding from a separate email thread we have been having on this topic that these seats, while ‘available’ from LH, cannot be reserved by agents in the current US system without ‘long selling’ them. I am certainly not the subject matter expert on the vagaries of our DM IT system, but from what I gather, what you have experienced is a structural part of the current reservations availability system at US regarding this particular award inventory.”
There is more than one way to book an award seat. The easy way is for agents to use their front-end systems to search for space. US Airways, like United, uses the SHARES platform to book and manage reservations, including award reservations. Similar to the way consumers book reservations online, agents can specify routing and airline in order to bring up flight selections. But when space on a particular flight does not show up, it is possible for agents to specifically request seats on that flight through a process that is technically called a “need-need” (NN) but also known as a long-sell or manual request. By inputting the airline code (e.g. LH for Lufthansa), the flight number, and the fare class (“O” for first, “I” for business, “X” for economy), StarNet is pinged for that specific flight and the flight either returns confirmed (HK) or denied (WL). If denied, the default system action is to waitlist the flight, but an agent will typically see a message to the effect of “waitlist closed.”
In light of this burgeoning problem, I asked Middelton whether long sells would be permitted, pointing out that some senior US Airways agents are trained on how to manually request flights, though most who do know how to do this are unwilling to do so, claiming such practice is strictly forbidden. Middelton responded, “Our DM agents have not been instructed to specifically refuse any long sells, they simply do not know how to process this function even if a customer asks. Unless they are a seasoned agent, this is not provided in training as we don’t do this type of function in Shares and is considered a workaround and again only to those agents that have been around a long time and even then they may not know how to do this function.”
As promised, Middelton and her team did reach out to Lufthansa who not surprisingly said it found no issues on their end. “They advised they are not seeing any bugs or issues and the availability seems to working as it should. They said sometimes of course they are not able to accommodate customers because some of the other Star partner are grabbing the seats quicker than others but don’t see any limitations from one system to another on available seats. They also indicated they are constantly reviewing ways to improve their system and will hopefully have some additional tools in April next year.” Clearly, this is not an issue of another Star partner grabbing the seats quicker.
Here are the important takeaways from my exchange with US Airways—
1. Long-Sells are not against Dividend Miles policy
If you see Lufthansa award space on ANA’s award search tool and a US Airway agent cannot see the seat, you can request that they confirm the space via a need-need. Middelton stated, “We will continue to book through our availability through Shares. If a customer should request a long sell (which we don’t think happens that often), and the agent actually knows how to do this function we will try to accommodate the request as best as we can.” This is a welcome solution to a problem that has resulted in the majority of intra-European award space in 2014 being blocked. Still, Middelton would not commit to sending a memo or providing clear instructions to agents that long selling is permitted, so most agents are still under the impression they are not permitted to do so. Unless US Airways clarifies this explicitly with agents, it will still be a struggle to book Lufthansa space.
2. There will be no fix for this problem
Reading between the lines in my conversation with US Airways, it seems clear that whatever the problem in SHARES, it will not be fixed such that agents will again be able to see Lufthansa flights. The odd thing is that not every Lufthansa flights is blocked—for example, I was trying to book a flight from Frankfurt to Venice for next April and over a two-week period each day was blocked except for one Saturday. This despite the fact that each day showed identical I9, X9 availability (indicating at least nine seats were available in both business and economy class) in StarNet.
3. US Airways miles are still valuable, but less valuable than before
I have given up searching for Lufthansa space when a client comes to me with US Airways miles and that has often resulted in a more circuitous route that presumably ends up costing US Airways more in out-of-pocket expenses. But the Star Alliance network still has 26 other carriers and with the exception of some Swiss and ANA flights that have long been an issue, I am not experiencing any systemic award booking issues outside of Lufthansa. I would still sign up for the US Airways World MasterCard from Barclays with a sign-up bonus while you still can–even without Lufthansa the points are still valuable. I will soon share about the 90,000 mile North-Asia award I booked that includes longhauls on LOT, EVA, Austrian, and Brussels—a tremendous value. But getting around Europe is much more difficult with the Lufthansa spigot closed.
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US Airways has no incentive to fix a problem that makes it harder for consumers to use their miles, so if you want Lufthansa space in 2014, you are going to have to fight for it. I do not believe that an upsurge in requests for manual requests will cause US Airways to move more swiftly to address this problem, but at least it may orient more agents on the process and help others to get the best value for their miles. I am relieved to hear that US Airways is not consciously blocking this space, even if it is disconcerting that they cannot pinpoint the root of the problem.